Dick Cummins could do the impossible - make a cocktail party interesting.
He's a tall, white-haired man of 72 with a hail-fellow personality and a vruumm!-vruumm! motor. His conversation is a butterfly, flitting from here and there and landing on interesting flowers.
He was once a big-time athlete in the Big Ten. He graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which is very big-time. He's a former teacher and entrepreneur, and probably one of the few over-70 amateur stand-up comedians walking onto a stage - and undoubtedly the only one to tell risque jokes.
He's got stories, this San Diego man. Oh, yes. Many are about himself, but they tend to be light and funny. However, this is far too interesting a man to just skate along his surface.
In our inner lives, we build houses of many rooms, some carefully kept locked. I asked Dick to open a door into his private room, the one holding secrets but also lessons. As he does, the liveliness leaves his voice and it lowers. He can hear voices in there.
Every head looked up as the classroom door opened and a tall, middle-age woman walked in and took a seat in the back near a window and concentrated on gazing out of it.
The fifth-grade teacher silently followed with her eyes. "I see Dick Cummins' mother has come to visit us again," she said to the class quietly and moved on with the lesson.
Sitting rigidly in his seat, Dick wanted to die, especially when his mother started to pick her nose.
The teacher had compassion; the classmates had none. The only means Dick had to resist their playground taunts in that nasty sing-song teasing voice - "Your mommy's a pick nose" - was by a punch to the face. But he couldn't punch humiliation.
A kid can't fight his way out of the stigma and heartache of a mentally ill mother, especially as the psychiatry of the early '50s seemed to offer not a whole lot more than gourd-shaking incantations.
Dick Cummins was the son of Leroy, a fourth-grade dropout and an Army sergeant who had lied his way into uniform at age 14. His mother, Millie, was much different: creative and in love with reading and the arts. The home they created in Monterey near the Fort Ord base became a private hell for their only child. It wasn't deliberate. They did the best they could.
Millie was a gentle soul who was cursed to spend much of her life in the chains of mental illness. She was almost 40 when Dick was born, and 48 when her husband died.
The grasp of her sickness pulled Dick into its screaming maw.
Dick says at her best, Millie was eccentric but very smart, and that she would read to him by the hour. However, "She would do crazy stuff like take baths with me and leave the door open when I was 4 and 5 years old, and I was trying to get out. It was making me very uncomfortable. My dad would look in and just shake his head and not know what to do."
Dick's dad was way out of his depth in dealing with Millie's sickness. "He was the protector of our family," Dick says. "But what did he know about dealing with women? And what did he know about kids? I was his only one. He loved me dearly. But he didn't know how to live with a woman."
Dick was 8 when his father died. And though the man may not have known much about being a husband, he had been the rock to which Millie was tethered. Inevitably, her condition worsened.
Shortly after the "classroom invasion" incidents, a cop and social worker came to see Dick. He remembers the social worker saying, "Your mother was unclothed down on Fremont Street (in Monterey) offering people $10 bills as they walked by, so she's been taken to (a mental hospital)."
After being committed, Millie was given many sessions of electroconvulsive therapy, known commonly as shock treatments. In the '50s, those were seen as almost Frankensteinian, thanks largely to movie depictions. Given the medical technology at the time, perhaps they were.
When he heard his mother had been committed, young Dick was actually relieved. After being bounced around several foster care homes, he was sent to live with an uncle in Rock Island, Ill.
"I remember at my uncle's watching Walt Disney's "Dumbo" movie. When Dumbo's mother is being taken away in a train with bars on it, and Dumbo was crying, I started crying, too."
Conflicts raged in the boy. "My uncle got a letter from a shrink asking if he could get me to write my mother a letter saying how much I missed her and wished she would get well and get out of the hospital. My uncle put a pencil and paper in front of me on the dinner table. I broke the pencil in two and started crying. I was 11."
When Millie was released, she moved to Illinois where she had been raised, to be near where Dick had been sent. With only her late husband's modest military pension, she rented a small place in the poorest part of town. Dick recalls that white residents were sandwiched between blacks on one side and Mexicans on the other to keep those two warring groups apart. It was in that environment that he saw firsthand the effects of racism - and developed a life-long hatred of it.
"I had told my uncle I didn't want to go live with my mother because it wasn't fun living with somebody that was crazy. I loved her dearly, but I didn't want to live with her."
After a custody battle between uncle and mother, which Millie won, as mothers usually do, Dick moved back with her.
"One thing she said after my father died was, ‘Honey, you're the man of the house now,' and I didn't know what to do about that when I was 8 years old. I was sort of set up then to be emotionally responsible for my mother's well-being."
Dick acted out his roiled emotions by fighting, skipping school and dodging every textbook that stumbled into his path. In high school, his chance for higher education was saved by being a top athlete. He earned a football and track scholarship to the University of Iowa.
But at home, the despair continued - hers and his. Her mental illness was like a gallows trap door through which she could fall at any time. Millie was aware of her mind's treachery. She would often say to Dick, "I don't want to get sick again."
But it always came back, and Dick knew the signs. "Like we'd be in a grocery store and she'd say, ‘Look at this. It looks like a head that's been severed.' It was some cellophane over a lettuce or something. Whenever she'd say things like that, I knew something was coming.
"The guy that lived next door was throwing fish guts in the backyard, she said, and I went over and talked to him, and he says, ‘I've never done anything like that.' He says, ‘Your mother doesn't seem quite right.' I said, ‘No, she's not quite right. Just kind of ignore it and be nice to her if you can.'
"In high school, my mother would want to come to my football game or something, and I'd try and make an excuse so she wouldn't because I was embarrassed by her. I really felt bad about that, but I had been made fun of so much in grade school that I didn't want that to happen again."
Dick went off to college and did his football and track and studies and girls stuff. He phoned every Sunday and visited Millie monthly. He also started to fashion a life for himself.
During one of his regular visits, Millie was hospitalized for more electroconvulsive therapy. It seared a deep rut of guilt into his conscience.
"I just absolutely hated to come back and see her just lying there vacant-eyed. She had 120 shock treatments, they told me. I held her hand and said, ‘You know, ma, you're going to get better again and you'll be all right. I'm doing pretty good in track and I'm doing really good in school. Maybe you can come and visit me sometime in Iowa.' She wasn't talking back. I felt bad, like I was trying to get rid of her, because I was.
"They interviewed me afterward, and they said she might get better after this and we were just wondering what your plans are. I said, ‘Well, if she gets good enough to go home, she's going to go home and I'm going to stay and finish my school and live my life.' They said, ‘Good. We applaud that.'"
Just because a psychiatrist approves walking away it does not wipe away guilt. Dick finished school and followed his muse into travel, opportunity and adventure. But for years, he would run for the door whenever a woman started getting serious. He eventually married an independent woman, Vonna, 25 years ago. He never had children.
Millie bought a little house in the neighborhood and stabilized mentally to a point where those who noticed merely thought of her as "that weird old lady down the block."
Years folded together and piled up and life went on for Dick and, in her fashion, for Millie also.
In 1989, Dick planned to return to Rock Island during Christmas week to take 83-year-old Millie for cataract surgery. However, a week before, he took a call that said she was in the hospital.
"I was in California working for a venture capitalist. I jumped on a plane and got there, and she was in ICU. The doctor said, ‘She doesn't seem to be in her right mind.' I said, ‘That's happened before.' He said, ‘She's not going to make it because we're keeping her alive with drugs.'"
Since Millie was mainly out of it, he wandered over to her little house and went inside.
When he starts telling me this, the memories that surge into his mind cause his eyes to tear up and his voice to break. He apologizes with exasperation at himself, the way teary men do as though they've violated some sort of code.
"I went down in the basement. The washing machine, when I opened the lid, it had clothes and water in it, and there was fungus over the top. She had plugged it into an outlet and somehow knocked the plug loose so it wouldn't work.
"There were mice running all over the kitchen. If I'd have come home more, I'd have seen all of that. Every time, I had kept saying, ‘Mom, I'm going to come home and I'll take you over to get your eyes done.' ‘Oh, honey, don't do that now. I'm all right. I'm doing fine.'
"I didn't think it was fine, but I was selfish and didn't want to leave my job."
Back at the hospital, Dick sat vigil.
"She woke up, looked at me and grabbed my hand in the ICU and she said, ‘I'm so glad to see you. Could you ask them please to give me some ice cream? I'd just really like some ice cream.' I went to the nursing stand and I said, ‘Could I get some ice cream for my mother?' The nurse said, ‘Oh, she can't have that. She can't eat anything like that.' I said, ‘Goddamnit, she's going to die. Why the hell can't she eat some ice cream?'"
The time came to put the do-not-resuscitate sign on the door. "All that guilt about putting her away and loving her and hating her at the same time, all that came back. I remember the room was dark and I was holding her hand and pretty soon it just got colder and colder until it was room temperature, and I knew she was gone before I could explain everything to her and tell her that I loved her and tell her how bad I felt that I couldn't have helped her more or done more for her."
"I went outside and I was leaning up against the wall on the side away from the nurses' stand and I was crying and I slid down the wall. I remember they called the coroner and a big gurney came up and they got her and took her to the funeral home.
"I went back to the house and got real drunk in that damned house with all the mice running all over everything because she couldn't take care of anything. She couldn't see, and that was my fault for not coming home and seeing this, seeing what was going on there."
A quarter-century later, the emotions are softened but a part of him will never leave that house.
"Ma, I loved you the best I could."
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.